THE KOSOVO DIARIES (Part One) – PEJA, DEČANI and PRISTINA

Day One: Mon 25th September 2017
Travelling to Peja

Yesterday I arrived in the provincial Montenegrin mountain town of Berane at 7pm. 12 hours earlier I departed the town of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina for the city of Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro. I get into Pod’, or Titograd as it used to be called at 1.30pm. My connecting bus to Berane departs in two hours. Perhaps I am mistaken but Podgorica is not a pretty place. Knackered Communist era living blocks surround the bus station and even the bus station itself has barely changed since about 1974. I think Titograd is a more fitting name.

I find a modern pizzeria restaurant about 100 metres outside of the bus station from where I take the opportunity to use the bathroom (immaculately clean I could eat my capriccioso pizza off the ceramic floor – yet the lights go off when I am already doing the business) and the free wi-fi to book my accommodation in Berane, and have a good meal that isn’t crisps and chocolate bars. The waiters speak flawless English.

For the duration of the Pod-Berane bus trip, we journey through the Montenegrin countryside; an authentic and unspoilt slice of rural Balkans. When I arrive in Berane the sun is already setting and I realise I have already traversed through most of Montenegro in less than a day. It’s not a big country.

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The Montenegrin mountain town of Berane

Berane is not the kind of place you would want to be anchored to for too long; especially if you are young and alive. Not much goes down here and it reminds me of a scoop of time-forgotten Brexitville unceremoniously dumped in the middle of the countryside. There is a bus to the Kosovan town of Peja leaving the following day at 11am. Apart from the hotel receptionist where I am staying, absolutely nobody speaks English in this town. I know perhaps ten words of Serb-Croat with a few more Polski words to boot but that only gets one so far. I soon learn that the 11am bus is delayed by 40 minutes. That’s quite a delay but I refuse to leave this one horse station for fear that I will miss the bus. I constantly keep my eagle eye peeled for the bus. When it arrives it’s one of those retro Communist era buses from about 1981; a far cry from gap yarr Euro Rail travelling. I am the only tourist on the bus. Most of the passengers are Kosovan/Albanian.

When we arrive in Peja three hours later, it is raining hard. I have no map of this city of functioning wi-fi on my phone. I wait at the bus station for the rain to soften. I realise I’ll be waiting a long time. Foolishly, I have no umbrella (I lost my last one somewhere on the Paris metro, I think) and I decide to brave it. As I walk along the main road towards what I think will be the centre of town, I am soon rewarded by the sight of a modern Diner style restaurant. They have wi-fi, much to my delight. Not only that, there’s a decent menu and a front display of delicious deserts; many of which I remember from the historic family run patisserie in Sarajevo called Egipat. A filling plate of shredded chicken kebab with chips, salad, and a generous slice of tiramisu for dessert all comes to just €3.50.

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Peja town

I continue walking up the main road. I soon approach a pedestrian square, where a large mid to high range hotel, Hotel Dukagjini, is located, but I am on the lookout for the more modest Hotel Peja. Close to me is an airline travel agency. I enter in the hope that someone there may know the whereabouts the hotel. The attractive and courteous young woman at the desk greets me in perfect English. She isn’t sure where exactly it’s located but she kindly offers to call the hotel and the owner duly meets me at the agency. A stocky white-haired man, perhaps in his late sixties or seventies, arrives and together we walk to the hotel. The hotel is only a couple of blocks away directly facing an enormous future-retro eyesore of a building; like something concocted by the architect of the Barbican tower blocks on acid laced Kool Aid. It is unique in it’s ugliness; the No Retreat No Surrender of global architectural monuments. My hotel is nothing noteworthy but perfectly fine for a couple of nights.

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Eyesore or work of art?

I spend the remainder of the rain drenched afternoon and early evening mildly exploring what I can of this city within relatively close proximity to my hotel. In no time I discover a small bazaar like street named “William Wolker” street. William Walker, not to be confused with the clumsy failed wannabe 19th century American conquistador, was the head of the Kosovo Verification Mission, which was a peacekeeping mission established to put an end to the Kosovo War of the late 1990s. Former president Bill Clinton and former US general Wesley Clark also each have a street named after them. As does Tony Blair. Many people view Blair as a “war criminal” owing to his involvement in the 2003 Iraq war, but not the people of Kosovo. Here he is regarded very highly and some families who survived the Kosovo War even went as far as calling their sons ‘Tonibler’. The side of WW street is decorated with a maze of tangled black electricity wires, like its trying the outdo the legendary dishevelled mess of wires found in most of the narrow old bazaar alley ways of Old Delhi, but no matter how hard it may try it will never come close.

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In Kosovo Tony Blair is held in very high regard

My meanderings soon lead me to the Peja Arts Gallery featuring a solo exhibition of beautiful paintings by the local Kosovo artist Isa Alimusaj. Sadly the gallery appears to be closed even though all the lights inside are blazing. As much as I want to enter, I cannot find anybody who is in charge. Next to the gallery is a library called the ‘Azem Shkreli” library. I wonder if Azem is related to the controversial American-Albanian multimillionaire “Pharma bro” businessman Martin Shkreli? Although I later discover that Shkreli is quite a common Albanian surname. Not far from my hotel by the river is a statue of Mother Theresa, who was originally from Albania. And nearby is a memorial to four soldiers who died during the Kosovo War. In the evening the temperature plummets. I buy a bottle of water and some pears and retire to my room at the Hotel Peja.

 

Day Two: Tuesday 26th September 2017
Visiting the Patriachate of Peć and Visoki Dečani monasteries

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The old Ottoman era bazaar of Peja

Early in the morning I leave my hotel room and walk to the main square where I find a tourist information office. It is staffed by a woman who speaks excellent English. She provides me with a map and highlights all the places I want to visit. My first destination is the city’s old bazaar; like a miniature version of the Baščarsija bazaar in Sarajevo. Walking through the bazaar I try to locate somewhere where I can have breakfast. Ordinarily I skip breakfast, but not this morning. I am so hungry I could burn down cities in return for a large plate of čevapi. I follow my nose, towards the source of the pungent smells radiating from the town’s burek and čevapi eateries. I am led to a čevapi joint called Oebaptore Meti. And what a good call that was. The Cevapi here is as good as it gets in the Balkans. Not only that. I also receive a generous side of salad and grilled vegetables. And all for €2.50. The overpriced pretentious bistros of Paris can do one. The food here is divine. I think Anthony Bourdain would concur.

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The best cevapi in Peja

Belly overstuffed and belt loosened, I revisit the Peja Arts Gallery containing all those magical paintings by Isa Alimusaj. Initially I come to the conclusion that the gallery must be closed, but after giving the retro gallery entrance door a firm push, to my delight, I stumble inside. The paintings of Alimusaj are magnificent. Wow! What a privilege it is to discover such a brilliant and gifted artist in the unlikeliest of settings. Those paintings don’t deserve to be hidden in some remote and hard to reach corner of Eastern Europe. They should be on the walls of the Royal Academy of Art. I could reference some well known artists when I look at his paintings; Klimt, Dali, Munch and Bosch perhaps. But the truth is they are like no other artist. Alimusaj is in a league of his own.

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Paintings by local Kosovan artist Isa Alimusaj at the Peja Arts Gallery

Feeling lifted by seeing such magnificent art, I make the 2-3km walk towards the Patriachate of Pec monastery. As I walk further out of town, I see houses and buildings that were scarred from the war of the late 1990s; destroyed areas covered with newer bricks next to older bricks. The scenery on the walk is beautiful. Even with the sky heavy with low nimbostratus clouds, the mountain countryside sparkles. The entrance to the path leading to the monastery is guarded by NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR). At the entrance I show my passport. A group of other visitors soon arrive. A young Englishman called Jack from somewhere in Essex stands out like a whirlwind. He has beautiful long blond curly hair like a youthful Robert Plant and is clad in neo-dandy/hipster ware with shades of his Essex soul brother Russell Brand. He’s with his travelling companion who is an older reserved American who looks like an academic scholar on early Native American history. I get talking with the dude from Essex. They both arrived at the entrance in a battered Mercedes taxi. ‘The taxi geezer charged us 15 euros from the bus station to here. I think he charged us too much’. I think so too. Then apropos of nothing, he points to his reserved travelling companion and blurts out, ‘E’s a West Ham fan too!!’ And here I was thinking, perhaps naively, that I was going to have a quiet uninterrupted trip to this monastery, in a hard to reach little travelled part of Eastern Europe, where I’d have it all to myself. How wrong was I. I like Jack though and he seems to be having a thoroughly great time travelling and seeing awesome things and not allowing himself to be trapped in some depressing-ass road to nowhere job in Basildon or someplace around his neck of the woods.

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The Patriarchate of Pec monastery 

The Orthodox Serbian monastery dating back to the late 13th century is a jewel painting in red-terracotta. Yet it becomes even more spectacular when I enter. What immediately impresses me are the frescos covering all the walls and ceilings; rich, luxurious and brilliant. Its hard to comprehend how after over seven centuries they are still so alive. The extraordinary skill of them is up there with the very best of the early Italian Renaissance painters. I am particularly spellbound by a specific ceiling fresco, which, through centuries of decay, has morphed into a composition that makes even Goya’s most dystopian works look tame. This fresco appears like its engulfed in Mother Nature’s foulest weather and Tesla’s coil violently erupting. I stay at the monastery for a while, marvelling at the frescos before walking back to town.

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13th century frescos from the monastery 

As I reach Pec town I head towards the bus station to visit another monastery called the Visoki Decani monastery located outside of the town of Decani, which is situated between Pjac and the town of Gjakove. When I arrive at the bus station I have half an hour to kill before my Decani bound bus leaves Peja. So I walk across the main road to a bar and on a whim I order a large cold bottle of Peja beer for only one Euro. Time marches on as I begin to feel the initial effects of tipsiness. Before I know it I have just five minutes remaining. I am no barfly but I drain the remainder of my bottle of beer in a way that would have made Oliver Reed proud. When I get on the bus I indicate to the driver that I want to get off at Decani specifically to see the monastery. Nobody speaks passable English on the bus, but I think the driver gets the message. Forty minutes later as we appear to approach what looks like my destination, the driver signals for me to disembark and points to a road that will lead to the monastery. Decani town seems down at heel and depressed and I don’t think the war was kind to this town. There are memorials to soldiers who died in the war and about ten minutes away on the road back to Pec there is a massive, and I mean gigantic, cemetery, where many citizens who died during the war are buried.

I walk for almost 30 minutes along a quiet country road with lush forests and mountain scenery before I approach the beginning of the entrance to the monastery. This monastery has much more security than the Patriarchate of Pec monastery; its almost as if you are going to a Royal Family wedding. I hand over my passport and rucksack at the entrance before entering the compound. It is a handsome white monastery dating back to 1327 during the reign of the Serbian King Stefan Decanski who was the father of King Dusan who ruled Serbia during the golden age of the Serbian Empire. Yet the monastery has a turbulent history becoming the target of many attacks and attempted attacks. Since the Kosovo war, the monastery has been extremely vulnerable to attacks including an incident on 30th March 2007 when suspected Kosovan Albanian insurgents threw hand grenades at the monastery. Fortunately, not much damage was created. This is one of the reasons why the monastery is under constant tight security.

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By the Decani monastery

Like the Patriarchate, the Decani monastery is decorated with monumental frescos. When I enter a procession is already in full swing. The main area of the monastery is exquisite with a sky-high ceiling, elaborate frescos and many tall candles on a suspended chandelier, which one of the orthodox monks would put out one by one with a long metal candle snuffer stick.

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Inside the Decani monastery 

It has been an awesome and active day today. I am exhausted by the time I return to my room at the Hotel Peja.

 

Day Three: Tuesday 27th September 2017
Travelling from Peja to Pristina

At midday I check out of my hotel room. The young woman who is in charge arranges a taxi to come and collect me to take me to the bus station from where I will take a bus to the Kosovan capital of Pristina. She is very kind and speaks excellent English. Last night she made me a complimentary mint tea. She tells me that a taxi to the station should not exceed one Euro. I ask her, out of interest, how much a taxi should cost from the station to the Patriarchate monastery? She tells me two euros. I mention my Essex friend paying 15 euros. She looks at me as if he jumped out of a plane without a parachute. As I go to my taxi she insists that I don’t pay more than three euros for a cab from Pristina bus station to the location of my accommodation over there.

The taxi driver is a stocky middle age Kosovan-Albanian with a severe crop. He doesn’t speak a lick of English, but he can speak some German having lived in Germany for 18 months as a refuge during the war. I communicate with him in my fractured German.

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Inside Peja bus terminal 

At the bus station I locate my knackered old school Pristina bound bus. I nod in and out of consciousness for the duration of the journey. As we approach the outskirts of Pristina my first impressions are not full of joy. Arriving at the rundown bus terminal I begin to feel that the city centre, and more importantly my guesthouse, is no stone’s throw away. I haven’t the faintest notion where I am in relation to the city centre. With no map to guide me and no SIM card in my phone it is going to be challenging. My hopes lift when I get talking with a young man at the information desk in the terminal who speaks reasonable English. He gives me the password for the terminal wi-fi and finally I can take advantage of good ol’ Google Maps. I have already mapped out my journey from the bus station to my accommodation. When I approach two outside taxi drivers they both want at least ten euros to take me to my accommodation which is more than triple what I was advised to pay by the young woman back at Hotel Peja. I walk on. Even with the assistance of Google Maps, I am obstructed by a loud and aggressive dual carriageway with no infrastructure to cross it. No way am I going to cross this death-trap with vehicles driving at out of sight speeds. I swiftly come to the realisation that paying ten euros for a taxi may not be such a bad idea after all. So I approach another taxi driver. This one speaks no English. Nevertheless I show him the address of my accommodation. After looking at the scrap of paper with the address for what seems like an age, he brusquely says, ‘OK!’. When I press him on the taxi fare, he grunts in German, ‘Drei, vier Euro’. Fuckin’ A. Lets go.

Everything goes swimmingly until we approach the district of the city where my accommodation is supposed to be located. It is situated on the edge of a hill overlooking the city centre. After driving aimlessly across multiple narrow streets, the taxi driver stops at a small convenience store to ask for directions to my place. A middle age woman with red curly hair appears. She speaks refreshingly good English and advises me to go to an Italian restaurant located further down the street, which may be able to better assist me. When I tell her that I am from England, she almost gets down on her knees repeatedly telling me, ‘I love England! The war was so terrible and you defended us!’ The taxi driver then proceeds to drop me off at the Italian restaurant, continually apologising in German for his navigation blunders. I tell him not to worry and get out of the cab. At the Italian restaurant, I find a waiter who speaks excellent English yet he has no idea regarding the whereabouts of my accommodation. Happily though he allows me to use the wi-fi in the restaurant. I call my host via WhatsApp telling him where I am. He duly arrives in a black BMW X5 looking like the ring leader of some sordid Albanian human trafficking gang. I am absolutely petrified of him. On arrival at the location of my accommodation it appears that I got more than what I expected. Not only do I have my own private room, I have my own mini apartment all to myself with a breath-taking view over Pristina. As I take it all in, he ominously barks, ‘Pay!’ like some Costcutter Don Corleone. I have a look inside my wallet and discover that I only have six euros. I ask him whether I can pay later? He’s not happy with my response. ‘Ok come with me I drive you to cash machine’. And so I put back on my shoes just as I took them off and we had to his black mafia mobile. He drives me to some BNP Paribas cash machine located outside of the city. As I attempt to withdraw 100 euros, the bank tells me there will be a flat five euro withdrawal fee. So I double my withdrawal amount to 200 euros. When I pay him he becomes less intimidating. The hard Lennie McLean façade morphs into soft as butter Dr Phil. He offers to drive me all the way to the centre of the city.

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Pristina at night

My impressions of Pristina become more positive the closer I get to the centre. My quest to find a tourist information centre and a map fails miserably. On a positive note, I ask two random young guys for directions to a city centre based hostel where my chances of finding a city map are high. They are both wonderfully friendly and speak fluent English. At Hostel Hun, located on the forth floor of a building, I meet a young hostel worker who speaks perfect English. He gives me a map of the city. I am not a fan of dormitories, but this hostel is quiet, clean and appears well run. I make a reservation for one night in the six-bed dormitory room for my third night in Pristina.

Afterwards I walk to a nearby diner where I order a combo of chicken and beef kebab meat with chips and salad. I haven’t eaten all day. I am still peckish after finishing my meal and so I order a sandwich with small hamburger-like patties and salad. Then I head back towards my mini apartment. On the way I pause at a modern café/bar and order a slice of the Three Milks cake. It is delicious. Later I amble up the hill back to my pad.

 

By Nicholas Peart

(c)All Rights Reserved 

 

 

 

 

 

Photographs From Mostar

I visited the town of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina during my two month long Balkans trip back in September 2017. The town is one of the highlights of the country and is easily accessible from either Sarajevo or the historic Croatian town of Dubrovnik. I took the train from Sarajevo, which I highly recommend. On most bus journeys its not uncommon to hear the latest chart music playing on the speakers. Instead during this two hour train journey I was treated to a non stop 60s and 70s rock n roll extravaganza of Thin Lizzy, Free, Deep Purple, Credence Clearwater Revival, The Rolling Stones and lots more classic music from that era.

Mostar is well known for its famous Ottoman era landmark bridge in the old part of town. During the Bosnian war in the 1990s the bridge was completely destroyed as was much of the town. In fact if you take a good walk around Mostar you will see many remnants of bombed out and dilapidated buildings from that awful time. The current bridge is a beautiful and meticulous reconstruction of the original bridge.

There’s a popular restaurant in the old part of town close to the bridge called Sadrvan, which serves delicious and inexpensive traditional Bosnian cuisine. Look out for the Mostarian Sahan (a traditional local mixed hot pot) and the Duvec (a rich vegetable stew).

This is a pleasant and charming old historical town in a beautiful setting. Most places are walking distance away and you can easily spend 2-3 leisurely days here. Away from the main tourist drag there are some good bakeries selling cheap and tasty pastries.  The best thing to do here is to walk and explore the streets and side streets. Lots of interesting nooks and crannies can be unearthed. Below I am sharing with you all some of my photographs from this interesting slice of the Balkans…

 

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Photographs and text by Nicholas Peart

(c)All Rights Reserved

Visiting Mokra Gora and Višegrad

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The countryside of Serbia is truly extraordinary. After experiencing Belgrade, I decided to spend a week in the southern Serbian mountain town of Zlatibor. At around a kilometre above sea level, it has a cooler climate and made a welcome change to the melting Satan-hot summer temperatures of Belgrade. It has been said that Zlatibor has some of the cleanest air in all of Europe. Zlatibor is a resort town and is a very popular skiing destination for Serbians in winter. For a week I had my own mini studio-cube apartment at the top level of a warm family home on the outskirts of town.

Zlatibor is also a launchpad from which to visit the region’s surrounding areas of which there are many gems. However without your own vehicle it can be challenging to visit these places. Fortunately I met a very interesting and knowledgeable young man named Bogdan who has his own small tour business. It was already the beginning of September when I arrived in Zlatibor and by then much of the peak August crowds had left meaning the town wasn’t over crowded and finding/extending accommodation was never a problem.

 

Mokra Gora

One day I embarked on a day tour with Bogdan and a small group of Serbian tourists to the nearby region of Mokra Gora close to the Bosnian border. Mokra Gora is an authentic and traditional slice of the Balkan country with some magnificent vistas. For the first leg of our Mokra Gora excursion, Bogdan drove us from Zlatibor to Mokra Gora railway station, from where we would travel on an old school train on the short but memorable Sargon Eight narrow-gauge railway line. This line was originally built in 1921 just after the First World War. It took four years to build and is over 15km long. The construction of the line was increasingly gruelling and often life threatening. 3,000 – 5,000 workers were involved in its construction and 200 died. As well as laying down the track, 22 tunnels and 5 bridges were built to make way for the line. The longest tunnel has a length of 1669 metres.

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By the Ćira train on the Sargon Eight narrow-gauge railway line

Rather tragically, not long after the railway line was completed, it became abandoned and defunct. It was only in 1999 when it re-opened as a tourist attraction. The classic and vintage narrow gauge train is known as the “Ćira” train. Being on this train brings back happy childhood memories of riding the famous Bluebell Railway train in East Sussex. The spirit of Thomas the Tank Engine throbs. All that is missing is Ringo Starr. I can imagine him being the conductor of that train in another life, taking ample swigs from a cheap bottle of plum rakija in the colder winter months whilst entertaining passengers with off-beat anecdotes via the tannoy.

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Mokra Gora

The landscape and views throughout the train journey are sublime. It is a true joy to ride on this train and simple stare and marvel at the fertile green mountain scenery. All that hard graft to build the railway line was not all in vain. The first station we stop at is called the Ninth Kilometre. It is so-called since there are nine kilometres between the station and the Bosnian border. Then we stop at Jatare Station. Here I take a short hike up a small rocky hill with a young Serbian couple from Belgrade for some lovely vistas. Jatare used to be a water station and resting place and is also known by the fact that not one ticket was ever sold at the station.

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In Jatare with some Serbian friends

We make a few more stops to admire the country scenery before returning to Mokra Gora station where we are reunited with Bogdan. From here we travel to a nearby small village called Bela Voda, which is well known for its natural spring with healing water. The water is known to cure and treat skin diseases. What is also unique about the water here is it is highly alkaline with a pH of 11.5 and is ranked as 5th in the world in terms of its pH level. In addition to treating skin diseases, the water can be drunk in small doses and can cure stomach ulcers and gastritis. It is good for digestion and is also known as ‘eye water’ since it can treat eyelid inflammation.

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Bela Voda

Bela Voda is a paradise of a place with an attractive cherry-red stone church by the water stream, which augments the beauty and etherealness of this special village. I fill my empty bottle with some of this water from the well. Nearby there are wooden huts that are available to rent. I think to myself how delightful it would be to spend a long summer here completely forgetting any notions of time and space.

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Drvengrad

From Bela Voda, Bogdan drives us to a hillside village not far from Mokra Gora railway station called Drvengrad. This completely wooden village was built by the Serbian filmmaker Emir Kusturica for his 2004 film Life Is A Miracle. It’s a unique, brilliant and unusual place with small streets and squares named after famous filmmakers, writers, visionaries, revolutionaries, sports-stars etc. I’ve written a separate article on the wonders of this magical place in another article which can be viewed here.

 

Višegrad

Early in the morning the next day, I meet up again with Bogdan for another tour this time visiting the historical Bosnian town of Višegrad. Višegrad is famous for its landmark Ottoman-era Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, which is a UNESCO world heritage site and was the bridge immortalised in the Nobel prize winning writer Ivo Andrić’s novel The Bridge On The Drina. It is also the site of another village complex built by Kusturica called Andrićgrad after Ivo. Unlike Drvengrad, this village is completely made from stone and there is a statue of Andrić.

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Dobrun monastery

Before crossing the Bosnian border, we make a stop at the old monastery of Dobrun, which was constructed in 1343 by Duke Pribil and his sons Stefan and Peter. Originally all of the interior of the monastery was decorated with frescoes. Today, just a fraction of those original frescoes survive. Fortunately the one of Tsar Dušan with his wife Jelena and their son Uros still remains. Tsar Dušan, who was also known as Dušan the Mighty (born in 1308 – died on 20 December 1355), was the King of Serbia from 8 September 1331 and the Emperor of the Serbs and Greeks from 16th April 1346 until his death in 1355. This was the golden age of Serbia and at the time of his death, the Serbian Empire included most of modern day Greece, Albania and large swathes of former Yugoslavia.

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14th century fresco of Tsar Dušan with his wife Jelena and their son Uros inside the monastery 

Unfortunately since the era of Tsar Dušan, the monastery was under attack on several occasions. The first attack came in 1393 when the Ottoman Turks occupied Bosnia. Yet it faced the greatest destruction during the Second World War when it was used by the Germans to store ammunition. On their withdrawal in 1945 at the end of the war, they blew up the monastery. It was restored the following year. In spite of the monastery’s turbulent history, it is a handsome and immaculate building in beautiful surroundings. The decoration of the front facade of the monastery is a work of art.

Afterwards we cross the border and head to Višegrad. In 1454 Višegrad was conquered by the Ottoman Empire headed by Osman Pasha. The town remained under the empire for over four centuries until 1878 when the Austro-Hungarian Empire controlled Bosnia and Herzegovina. More recently, the town suffered greatly during the Bosnian War from 1992-5. Much of the town was bombarded by JNA (Yugoslavian National Army) troops and many houses were destroyed and an estimated 3,000 Bosniaks were killed.

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The landmark Ottoman-era Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge in Višegrad

Most of the arches of the famous bridge were badly damaged (and some even completely destroyed) during both world wars. The bridge was also the scene for the killing of hundreds of Bosniaks by Bosnian Serb forces during the Bosnian War.

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In Andrićgrad

Filmmaker Emir Kusturica’s nearby village complex, Andrićgrad (also referred to as Kamengrad or ‘Stonetown’), officially opened on 28th June 2014 to mark the 100th year anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by the young Bosnian revolutionary, Gavrilo Princip. When you enter the complex and walk along the Main Street with cafes, you may notice two large rectangular mosaic murals by the Multiplex Dolly Bell cinema. The first one features Gavrilo Princip with other members of the Young Bosnian movement who wanted to end Austrian-Hungarian rule in Bosnia by assassinating the Archduke. This led to the start of the First World War. In the other mural a group of men featuring Kusturica appear to be engaged in a ‘tug of war’. In a way this mural is a homage to the perseverance and resilience in realising Kusturica’s vision of Andrićgrad. Looking at the mural more closely, you may notice the Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic in the background.

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Mural of Gavrilo Princip and members of the Young Bosnian movement 

 

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Mural of Kusturica (with Milorad Dodik, president of the Republika Srpska) and Novak Djokovic in the background 

The town’s style is a mix of Ottoman, Byzantine, Renaissance and Classical periods of architecture which reflect the history of Višegrad. There are statues of Ivo Andric, scientist and visionary Nikola Tesla and Petar II Petrović-Njegoš, who was a Prince-Bishop of Montenegro as well as an important poet and philosopher who’s works are seen as some of the most significant in Montenegrin and Serbian literature. In addition to his literary talents, Njegoš is seen as one of the fathers of the modern Montenegrin state and Kingdom of Montenegro, and for his struggles with the Ottoman Empire as he tried to expand Montenegro’s territory. His poem Gorski Vijenak (The Mountain Wreath) is considered a classic and it became the Montenegrin national epic. It had a big influence on Gavrilo Princip, who knew it off by heart. The poem is significant for many Serbians as its a reminder for them of their solidarity with Montenegro against the Ottoman Empire.

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Statue of the writer Ivo Andrić whom Andrićgrad is named after

 

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Statue of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš by the Crkva Svetog Cara Lazara orthodox church

Aside from the bridge and Andricgrad, Višegrad is a small but interesting city to explore on foot. If you have the time, walk along the bridge to the other side of the river. From there you can take a walk up one of the hills along a heavily debris laden path. From the top you have an incredible birds eye view over Višegrad.

On the way back down, keep on walking along the other side of the river and very soon you will stumble upon the childhood home of Ivo Andrić. It is a crimson-pink house, but it’s not possible to enter since it is a private residence.

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The childhood home of Ivo Andrić in Višegrad

Just before I left Višegrad for Zlatibor, I was at a small cafe close to the bridge where I had an exceedingly good slice of baklava cake. Oh boy it was so good. If I could remember the name of the place I would tell you, but alas I can’t.

 

By Nicholas Peart 

©All Rights Reserved

 

 

References

Wikipedia

-srbvoz.rs

-panacomp.net

-“The Town That Emir Kusturica Built” : excellent article by Peter Aspden in the Financial Times, where he writes extensively about Andrićgrad and also features an interview with Emir Kusturica

Dicing With Danger In Fortaleza

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Fortaleza: Not all a beach

 

The following article is an excerpt taken from my 2013-14 travel diary ‘Travel Journal Of A Lost Soul’

 

29th March 2014

Today the aeroplane crashed into the mountain. What happened today was perhaps the most frightening and dangerous position I ever found myself in so far in all my travelling life. Getting mugged on the streets of Caracas five years ago was small beer compared to this.

In the morning I took a local ômnibus to Fortaleza’s international airport to buy my plane ticket to the Cape Verde islands and also to have some clarity over a few Cape Verdean related immigration queries. I was also carrying my rucksack containing my iPad so that I could take advantage of the wireless internet in the airport. When I arrived at the airport, the TACV (local Cape Verde airline company) desk for flights to Cape Verde was closed. There was nothing I could do so I took an ômnibus from the airport to the city centre of Fortaleza. I had planned to take some photos and make some short films discreetly. So far tudo bem. I take my photos and films, have two cups of agua de coco, and explore a large portion of the city untroubled.

Later in the afternoon I look for an ômnibus going to the suburb of Iracema where my guesthouse is located. A big tough ol’ fat lady weighing at least 300 pounds tries to guide me to my bus. After some time she becomes very aggressive and starts demanding money. I board a random ômnibus about to depart and she gets on it too and begins to lunge at me. Immediately she grabs at my shirt and trouser pants and tries to punch me several times WWE style. I naturally cry for help but unbelievably no one on the bus comes to my rescue. At this moment I am absolutely terrified and in a panic I empty my wallet containing 15 Reis. She snatches the 15 Reis out of my hand and demands that I give her more money. When I am unable to give her more money, she rips my fake pair of Ray Bans off my face and crunches them up to debris in one of her enormous hands like a crusher at a scrap metal plant. Right now she’s a combination of Medusa and Big Mama Thornton on crack. Five policemen enter the bus. Three of them try to restrain her. My Brazilian Portuguese is maybe only half a step up from standard Gringo level and most of the time I barely decipher what she’s saying as it jets out of her mouth at 90 times the speed of sound. Only a little later does it become clear that she tried to unscrupulously frame me by claiming that I bought cocaine from her. And not only that…that I refused to pay for it! Even if this house of cards allegation were true, by admitting that you are a drug dealer surely creates ramifications for yourself, does it not? The police officers turn me and my rucksack upside down in pursuit of the smallest nano particle of blow. When they eventually realise that I am in possession of no drugs let alone cocaine, they simply bark something at this rare disgrace and let her go. The pathetic absence of justice and incompetence on the part of the local police, whilst it didn’t surprise me, left me feeling vulnerable, insecure and full of fear. Yet in their defence they did do one caring thing for me by driving me back to my pousada on Rua Dom Manuel in Iracema.

I am still trembling from this rare hi-octane episode of barbery that I spend the rest of the day and night in my room. I only venture out once in the early evening to buy bottled water and have a simple dinner at one of the adjacent restaurants.

When I finally manage to calm down, I discard my emotions and purchase my flight ticket to the city of Praia in the Cape Verde islands off the west coast of Africa. Tomorrow morning I vow to exit this city and go to the small and tranquil beach village of Canoa Quebrada.

 

By Nicholas Peart

(All rights reserved)

image source: http://www.expedia.com

Blazing To Panama City In Time For New Years Eve

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Panama City at night

 

The following article is an excerpt taken from my 2013-14 travel diary ‘Travel Journal Of A Lost Soul’

 

 

28th December 2013

I am sitting in the armchair in the corner of my spartan guesthouse room in the city of San José, Costa Rica. In front of me is a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi on the wall with the words, ‘ the only real prison is fear, and the only real freedom is freedom from fear’. Last night in my uber tired and messed up state I really pondered over these words. Now after at least seven hours of sleep, my body and mind are calmer and I am able to look at things more rationally.

My bus arrived in San José from the town of Estelí in Nicaragua at 11.30pm last night. It was originally scheduled to arrive at 8pm. I waited in Estelí for over two hours before the Tica Bus finally arrived.

This afternoon I purchased my bus ticket to the Panamanian city of David for tomorrow. From there I’ll continue on to Panama City.

 

 

29th December 2013

Today the pressure was high. I am now in my hotel room in David as I write this. I am falling apart from relentless travelling. Tomorrow will most likely be another eight hour journey as I make my way to Panama City.

The bus from San José to David was rather basic. At the Panamanian border, the officials demanded that I provide proof of onward travel out of Panama. This came quite unexpectedly. I certainly didn’t have a flight ticket out of Panama. There was one way I could get out of this. If I could show the officials a bank statement with funds of over $500, then they would stamp my passport and let me through. Fortunately there was a small ramshackle internet café nearby. I logged onto my bank account on this very dodgy computer with half the letters missing on the keyboard. Thankfully the connection was quite fast. My current account showed funds of less than £100. So I transferred £400 from my savings account onto my current account before printing off a statement of my newly topped up current account. I diligently sign off and revisit my bank account page to make sure I definitely WAS signed off. Interestingly, when I finally did present the statement to the officials they barely gave it a glance before my stamping my passport with a Panama entry stamp.

Here in my basic hotel room in David, it’s either too hot or too cold. There is an old AC unit with missing dials meaning I am unable to modify the Arctic temperature whenever I turn on the unit. In hindsight a room with just a simple fan would’ve been better but the crippling humidity in this part of the world makes me game for AC.

There is a noisy bar directly adjacent to my room. It’s 1am and the party is still going. Perhaps I should’ve anchored myself in San Marcos La Laguna instead of embarking on this batshit insane voyage.

 

 
30th December 2013

I woke at 9am. I don’t know how I feel. I feel numb. At one point in the night I woke up and thought I was in an unheated room in Puno. I turned off the AC and went back to sleep. I can’t see myself arriving in Panama City at a sensible time now.

I travel on a surprisingly comfortable and luxurious bus from David to Panama City. For $15 it was incredibly cheap for what it was worth. When I arrived at the bus terminal, I took a shared taxi to the Casco Viejo district. The taxista drove like a devil across the different highway intersections of the city to get to my destination. As we approached the outskirts of the Casco Viejo I almost forgot how rundown certain parts are. The section with all the tourist hotels and hostels is the more spruced up and nicer part. When I arrived at the big Santa Ana plaza I tried to find the cheap hotel I stayed at when I was last in this city some years back. After a few minutes of surveying the different corners of the plaza I finally found it; Hotel Caracas. Even though it feels like a tropical borstal, I remember when I last stayed here I had a basic but clean and spotless room with a fan for $10 a night. I asked to see a room. The first room I was shown looked nothing like the room I stayed at before. There were exposed live wires, marks on the walls and doors. Hell, even the bed sheets were a mess. The state of the shower looked like the aftermath of someone who’d blown their brains out with a shotgun during a game of Russian Roulette after an intense cocaine binge. The last time I’d seen a room as uniquely disgusting as this one was when I was in Beira, Mozambique. I kindly ask if I could see another room? I think we must have gone through about six rooms before finally settling on one for just one night – like choosing between six different formations of shit to eat. I choose the only one which had a window not facing an external wall. Yet when I did open the window it was directly facing onto an enormous heap of trash on the pavement of one of the more down at heel streets; a cocktail of death, decay and Kurt Schwitters. Yet even in my bombed out state of mind, there is something strangely fascinating about all this. I mentioned death but these streets are full of life. A raw and unsanitized liveliness. Isn’t this what I am always looking for? Well, now it’s there if I want it.

This evening I went to a hole in the wall bar right next to my hotel. I was the only Gringo there. I started as a barfly and pretty soon I was dancing salsa in my very rudimentary way with some enormous butterball of a lady from the Dominican Republic. I thought about staying out longer but I want to have some energy for tomorrow. For the next two nights I’ll be staying at the notorious backpacker hostel, Luna’s Castle.

 

 
31st December 2013

I slept erratically last night. This hotel room is like something out of a William S Burroughs book. I was woken up at 7.30 am by an insanely loud rubbish collection vehicle. Not even the V8 engine of the AC unit in my room could drown out this Earth shattering noise from outside.

After transferring all my things from Hotel Caracas to Luna’s Castle, I took a taxi to Albrook Airport to sort out my onward travel to Colombia. Although Panama borders Colombia, neither countries are connected by road. The PanAmerican higher abruptly ceases at some point between Panama City and the border. All that separates these two countries is an impenetrable stretch of jungle called The Darien Gap. Some courageous souls have successfully navigated it yet the risks far outweigh the rewards and for the handful of travellers who crossed it successfully many more have perished. There are at least three feasible ways to get to Colombia from Panama. One is to fly from Panama City to any major Colombian city. The second is to take a 4/5 day boat trip via the San Blas islands and the third option is to take a small domestic plane from Panama City to a small isolated Panamanian village called Puerto Obaldía on the Panama/Colombia border from where it is possible to catch a motorboat to the Colombian village of Carpuganá. From there you take another motorboat towards the city of Turbo which has land connections to other parts of Colombia. I embarked on the third option on my last trip across Latin America.

When I arrived at Albrook airport and enquire about purchasing a ticket to Puerto Obaldia departing in six days time, I was told that all flights to Puerto Obaldia were booked solid for the next three weeks. I was truly disappointed at this discovery. On the other hand, it was a tad shortsighted of me to have left the booking so late, especially since the plane is tiny and the fact there are not many flights. Yet three weeks is a staggering amount of time to wait until the next available flight and I for one am not going to languish in Panama City for that duration of time. I refuse to do the 4/5 day sailboat trip. Everybody seems to be doing that trip and I can already foresee a lot of problems and boredom from doing such a trip. With the third and second options ruled out, the next logical step seemed to be a direct flight from Panama City to the Colombian cities of Cartagena or Medellín. I was shocked to discover that the cheapest flight going was $350. That is a ridiculous sum of money for a one hour flight. Fortunately I soon discovered one more way to get to Colombia. A kind local lady who worked at Luna’s Castle hostel explain it all to me. It involved travelling in a 4×4 vehicle from the city to a small coastal town called Cartí. From Cartí I would then travel by speedboat for something crazy like 9-10 hours to Puerto Obaldía and finally Carpuganá. Like a concentration camp version of the third option.

As I write this from my hostel dormitory, I am now only two hours away from the New Year and the rumba is already in full swing. I will raise my last bottle of Balboa beer of the year towards much luck for the remainder of my trip and that I finally do manage to get to West Africa from Brazil – whether by boat, plane etc – it doesn’t matter.

 

 

1st January 2014

Last night the party at the hostel was enourmous. I was thrashing the rum and cokes. The party went on until sunset. I passed out at around 4am. Today has been a coma’d day. I spent most of it inside the hostel. Around mid afternoon I went for a stroll on Avenida Central off the Casco Viejo. Amongst the rare silence today on New Years Day, I got talking with an old Panamanian lady who, surrounded by masses of pigeons, sold bags of pigeon food. I bought a bag and suddenly became swarmed by dozens of them every time I threw a handful of grains on the floor. Most of the restaurants were closed bar a small low lighted budget Chinese restaurant where I had a very ordinary meal of fried rice and chicken. There are many Chinese here in Panama City and most of the ones I encounter (although certainly not all) are reserved and indifferent.

Since yesterday afternoon I befriended a middle aged Turkish/German man. He speaks almost no English but speaks Spanish very well having travelled in Latin America for a considerable amount of time. Although he is very intelligent and head and shoulders more interesting to talk to than many of the other guests staying at the hostel, he is also very intense and unstable. He is the kind of person that would burn down cities if things didn’t go his way. As a consequence I feel a little uneasy around him. It’s quite interesting how sometimes the most alive and riveting people are also the most unhinged. I often rage against mediocrity and dull people but for the most part I cherish stability. I don’t want my life to be a nonstop proverbial rollercoaster ride. I don’t want it. I would rather have a boring and stable life rather than a life full of tension. Oh boy, what am I talking about? If only I could become more aware of all my glaring contradictions.

 

 

 

By Nicholas Peart

(All rights reserved)

image source: http://www.pinterest.com

 

Fear And Loathing In Guatemala City

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Guatemala City: only the strongest motherf***ers survive

 

The following article is an excerpt taken from my 2013-14 travel diary ‘Travel Journal Of A Lost Soul’

 

December 13th 2013

I woke up feeling heavy, hot and nervous. As I was surfing the internet on my iPad in my small guesthouse room in the pretty Guatemalan tourist town of Antigua, I had a change of heart. It was almost 10am and I had an hour before check out. On a whim I decided to go to Guatemala City. I wanted to check out a few of the contemporary art galleries and spaces dotted around the city. The most important ones are Proyectos Ultravioletas (which is supposed to be the hub of the Guatemalan contemporary art scene) and NuMu (which currently has a retrospective of the work of the celebrated and fearless Guatemalan performance artist Regina José Galindo).

So this afternoon I dragged myself and my things to the ramshackle chicken bus terminal behind the mercado principal. Oh yes, I was all for the hard life again. For nine Guatemalan Quetzales a green and orange psychedelic chicken bus would whisk me all the way to the Zona 3 district of the city. The bus journey was quite an eventful 90 minutes. I held onto the iron bars tightly for every abrupt swerve on the mountain highway. At one interval, we were all serenaded by a flamboyant and lively duo in face paint. They were a stellar act and I gave them a few of my Quetzales.

Arriving in the Zona 3 district of the city was like landing in some out of bounds skid row district of Los Angeles. If a shifty hoody type approached me now he’d most likely square me up and say, ‘Come here again and I’ll kill you’. There was not a chance in hell I was going to consider walking even half a block in this part of town on my own. Fortunately I was accosted by a taxista as soon as I disembarked from the bus. He wanted 50 Quetzales which I thought was a tad on the steep side considering that the central Zona 1 district I wanted to go to bordered this district. We agreed on 40. I told him I wanted to go to the Hotel Fénix. He knew where it was. As I looked out of the window for the duration of the ride, I realised how grateful I was to be inside. I felt happy to shortly be arriving at my destination. Only there was one problem. It appeared that the Hotel Fénix did not exist any more. This is now Murphy’s Law tripping me down a long flight of stairs. Ok, think man. I have a glut of other contacts from the Kindle version of my Lonely Planet Guide to Central America on my iPad, but I’d rather not brandish it in front of the taxista. Yet I remember reading something on the internet recently about another hotel close by called Hotel Spring. The taxista was adamant to take me to some place I’d never heard of many blocks away from the centre. I held very firm with him and told him I wanted to go to the Hotel Spring. I even offered to pay him the original price of 50 Quetzales just to not argue with him and get this all done and dusted.

I arrive at the Hotel Spring, located in a an old decrepit colonial building with quite a spectacular internal courtyard. The rooms however are basic and more costly than anywhere else in the country. Guate (as many refer to this city) is probably the second most unsafe city I’ve ever visited after Caracas in Venezuela. The former central business district of Johannesburg comes a firm third place. I am a total dipstick for shunning beautiful and serene Antigua for this. Yet on the other hand, sometimes I need a drop of danger and tension in my life.

After checking into my room, I go for a mid afternoon stroll on Sexta Avenida, which is the main pedestrian drag in the centre of the city. Leave that drag and you are back in Mogadishu. A Guatemalan lady approaches me speaking fluent American English. Yet what she tells me isn’t pretty. She relays many a horror story involving deportation from the USA, rape, and being physically abused by her violent partner. She lost her papers and can’t return to California. Now she has no money and sleeps on the streets. She even points to the place where she sleeps behind an old building. Whether her stories were true or not, I give her all the coins I have in my right pocket.

Many of the restaurants on Sexta Avenida are a little pricy. The global fast food joints are always a last resort. After a while I find a nondescript hole in the wall place where I ate the worst and blandest meal on my trip so far of burnt chicken and macaroni cheese. I was a fool to eat it. Afterwards, I visited a large shopping centre called Centro Capital. Once inside, beauty parlours and arcades dominate. Yet my main reason for coming was to visit the Proyectos Ultravioletas art space. Unfortunately it was closed when I arrived. I later got chatting with a friendly security guard who told me he lived in the city of Washington for eight years. Judging by the ability of his English, I imagined he always stayed in one familiar community. His English was so substandard (not that my Spanish is faultless) I lost patience and spoke with him in his language. Observing him more, he looks like a member of a Calabrian mafia family.

Just as darkness was about to fall, I duly returned to my hotel room. At night I feel trapped and now I have a great urge to leave this city. Visiting this city just to see a few esoteric contemporary art spaces, regardless of how interesting they may be is simply not worth the heartache, back and brain damage. Wherever I go I will always be a Gringo. No matter how fluent my Spanish is or how much I assimilate myself into the culture and make friends, I will always be a Gringo. Later in the evening I chat with my sister Caroline via Skype and we speak for almost an hour. I subsequently felt glad and happy since for most of the day I was heading south with the realisation of the colossal error I made in coming here coupled with the even greater realisation of just how much of a grade A shithole this city really is. A mug is me.

 
14th December 2013

Last night I stayed all night in my hotel since as soon as I go outside I feel like an endangered species. The morning when I woke up and took a look in the mirror (the narcissistic fool that I am) I felt like I’d added 40 years to my age since yesterday. I got hardly any sleep last night. Some of the people in this hotel are rich in stupidity and insensitivity. There was constant noise. Loud talking and drunken laughter all night. A veritable frathouse. This unpleasant experience has scrapped all my plans to explore the galleries and visit the lovely couple I met in San Pedro Laguna. I now will pay whatever it costs to get out of this stew and move to my next destination. I feel like a sleep starved sack of shit. I have no energy and I am furious about last night. Yet I have to say that these last 18 hours since I touched down in Guate have given me a magnificent glimpse of Hell.

I took a walk through the streets of central Guate to find a bus company with transport to the Guatemala/Honduras border. As I walked I bumped into a middle aged Guatemalan man named Héctor. He spoke to me in very good and clean American English telling me that he lived in California until 1985. He knew of a couple of bus companies with transport to the border. We walked many blocks through the city. The city is a shambles and completely off limits and impossible to navigate if you are and look like a Gringo; depressing, dilapidated and out of date homogenous grey concrete blocks, lethal potholes, and second to none air pollution (most of which appears in generous portions of big black smoke from the many clapped out overworked chicken buses ploughing the busy city streets). Even during the day I can’t relax and I am on my guard to the maximum degree. It is not just the very real possibility of someone jumping on me without warning. Crossing the streets here is an art which requires some serious and seasoned skill and concentration.

During most of our walk through the city I let Héctor do most of the talking. He told me he was a teacher and earned 1600 Quetzales per month paid fortnightly. Today he was going to go to the rural village of Quiche to visit his parents and sisters. We visited two bus companies many blocks apart. Both had transport in some shape or form to the Honduran border but to get the bus I had to take a taxi to the North Terminal wherever the hell it was. On our walk back towards my hotel we both agreed to have a drink at a cafeteria close to the hotel. Once inside I ordered an orange juice. Héctor told me he didn’t have much money. I offered to buy him a drink. Instead he asked me whether I would give him some money? He asked for 100 Quetzales. I asked him what he needed the money for? He told me to buy meat to take with him to his parents village. I suggested we go to a meat vendor together and I would purchase what I thought was a reasonable amount at the local rates. He refused and demanded that I give him the money. I was a little disappointed by his behaviour. Immediately his tone changed and I didn’t feel comfortable around him. Then apropos of nothing, he got up, shouted something in rapid Spanish about the Guatemalan civil war and stormed out of the cafeteria. For about five minutes I felt very shaken. Moreover, I was tired and depressed. The site of Guate, even under a pristine brilliant blue sky, further exacerbated my depression. On a whim I returned to my hotel, grabbed all my things and got a taxi to Zona 3 to catch a chicken bus back to Antigua.

There was heavy traffic on the road back to Antigua. Some time later during the bus journey, a Christian Gringo missionary got on the bus at some random location. In haste, he began approaching random locals on the bus in fluent Spanish to get them to come along to his meetings and church services. He later approached me. I was in a foul mood yet I allowed him to ask me the following…

Was I going to spend a long time in Antigua?
No

Where are you going to after Antigua?
Have you heard of Lao Tzu pal?

No
He was a very wise Chinese sage. He once said that if you want to make God laugh, you tell him your plans and that includes where I am going to next.

Oh. But how long are you travelling for?
Don’t make God laugh

Where do you live?
England

Could we come to England to visit you in your home?
You gotta be fucking joking mate

I immediately retracted what I said. This is what Guate living does to gentle sensitive souls. I apologised profusely for my obnoxious behaviour. I kindly declined and told him I needed to rest. He was surprisingly good natured and moved on to the next random person on the bus.

When we finally arrived in Antigua, I returned to my old guesthouse like I’d just returned from an epic expedition through the DRC. The dueña told me that my old room was still available. I rejoice to the heavens. I spent most of the afternoon at the Toko Bar run by a wonderful Dutch/Indonesian guy called Eduardo. This place makes Antigua for me. It has been one of the highlights of my trip. Not just the delicious and generous portions of tasty Indonesian and global dishes, but the vibes, Eduardo’s stories and all the different and random people I keep meeting. Antigua is quite seductive in this respect even if it is very far from a slice of the ‘real’ Guatemala (whatever that means). These last two days have been a rough and gruelling fill of the real Guatemala so I am more than happy to recover in Antigua. In the evening I had plans to go to the Rainbow Café but after all I’d been through I had to pass.

 

 

By Nicholas Peart

(All rights reserved)

image source: https://www.porternovelli.com

Travelling From San Cristóbal De Las Casas To Panajachel The Hard Way

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You know you are in Guatemala when you stumble upon one of these badboys 

 

The following article is an excerpt taken from my 2013-14 travel diary ‘Travel Journal Of A Lost Soul’

 

29th November 2013

I am now in the Guatemalan lakeside tourist town of Panajachel. The word “epic” would be an understatement to describe today. Hindsight is indeed a wonderful thing and I would have made my day a lot less painful if I’d just swallowed my intrepid pride and taken the tourist shuttle bus. Instead I decided to inflict fifty shades of mayhem onto myself and opt for the hard, irrational and masochistic way. Either way I had to wake up super early this morning; 5.15am.

The first leg of the journey from San Cristóbal de Las Casas in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas was perfectly fine on a comfortable and modern Marcopolo bus. Three hours after departing San Cristóbal, we arrive at the Mexico-Guatemala border. I exit the bus, cross the road and receive my Mexican exit stamp from the small immigration office. There is a line of taxis outside all waiting to take me to the Guatemalan side; 10 Mexican pesos shared or 40 solo. Since I quickly figure out that nobody is going to be joining me anytime soon, I fork out the full 40 pesos just so I can press on and leave this godforsaken place. Once on the Guatemalan side, I promptly receive my Guatemalan entry stamp and change whatever remaining Mexican pesos I have into Guatemalan quetzals without paying too much attention to maths and exchange rates. Then I hop on a rickshaw-like vehicle to take me to the bus station (if you can call it that!). And here I am having traded swanky modern Marcopolo buses for the ubiquitous, dilapidated and hair raising chicken buses which plough the roads of the most down at heel parts of Central America. When their first life as perfectly innocent USA school buses expires, their next life is less gentle on the thug life streets of Tegucigalpa. I am bundled onto a brightly coloured and ornate chicken bus heading to the city of Huehuetenango. I feel blessed to have reasonable space for my legs. Two is comfortable where I am sitting. But after only a few stops, that number doubles to four. Yet I look on the bright side; one of the advantages of being squashed like a dead skunk on the side of the bus is that whenever the bus is turning on the narrow, long and winding highland roads, I am not forever sliding form one side of the bus to the other.

We arrive at the Huehuetenango bus terminal a few hours later. This terminal has all the classic trimmings of a crazy, dishelved and chaotic bus terminal in any third world city. This is raw. I am not in Mexico anymore. Mexico may be poor but I never once in all my time in Mexico witnessed a bus terminal as dirty and rundown as this one. I have some spare time to eat a very basic lunch of well done beef strips, rice and beans. Gourmet food this most certainly ain’t, but I hadn’t eaten all day until now. I have been to Huehue before on my last trip through Latin America a few years back, but I have no reason to stop there this time. An old dilapidated Mercedes “Pullman” bus (this one is two steps up from a chicken bus) with tyres so illegally smooth will take me to Panajachel – apparently. Even though I have my own seat, the upholstery is all crumpled up, loose and looks like it hasn’t been cleaned since I was five.

The bus journey goes well, until I ask the cobredor (bus conductor) what time we will be arriving at Panajachel? He replies that we went past it 40 minutes ago. This is not a directly Panajachel bound bus and will be going Guatemala City (the last place on Earth I would want to arrive at night). It’s already dark and I am so pissed off at this revelation. The cobredor then tells me that in five minutes he’ll drop me off at a stop from where I’ll be able to catch a bus to Panajachel. I think it myself thank god I have at least a foothold on the Spanish language otherwise I’d really be in a veritable no-mans land. When I get dropped off, I am literally dropped off on the side of a very busy highway. It’s dark, it’s cold, the highway lacks illumination and the night sky is downing in fog. There are enormous trucks going at impossible speeds. And I have to cross this death trap to get onto the other side. My heart is beating so fast I feel like it is going to explode from my body like a high pressure jet of water from a burst pipe. I honestly haven’t a clue where the fuck I am and I begin to feel a tremendous longing to be back home with my family. By some grace of god I manage to cross the road with all my things unscathed. Once on my side there is little tienda (convenience shop) and a small bay for on-coming buses to stop. I get chatting with some three toothed viejo (old dude) on the side of the road. He re-assures me that a bus will be coming soon. Seguro? (Are you sure man?). I give him a moneda (coin). His mood duly lifts and this time he is super seguro that every little thing is gonna be alright.

And soon a bus doth come along and I am bundled in with all my crap. Alas I don’t think this one will be going directly to Panajachel. I am so depressed I think I need a shot of mezcal and a band of impeccably dressed Mariachi musicians to console me. The driver drops me off at a busy crossroad from where I am briskly transfered onto another chicken bus. Maybe this one will be the last one? I am sitting on the floor at the back of the bus swerving like a lunatic as the bus driver takes to the narrow winding descending country roads Formula One style with Spanish language power ballads turned up full blast. He seems to be in a race with another chicken bus in a never ending game of ¿quien es más macho? I am not religious but I make the sign of the cross. Thirty minutes later I am bundled off this bus at a stop where there are about six other chicken buses. I am told that the one at the end of the line is going to Panajachel and, seguro, this will be the last one. I make a dash with my things towards it like it’s some holy chariot of good fortune. Once inside the bus, I look out the window and, through the bus lights, notice a sign which says, ‘Panajachal 8kms’. I will be so low if this bus doesn’t go the full eight kilometres. No matter how reckless the bus driver may be, I rejoice when this bus finally stops right at the side of the beginning of the tourist drag of Calle Santander in Panajachal town. Even though it is a little chilly, it is nowhere near the Lapland temperatures of San Cristóbal. I find a hotel and go to sleep.

 

By Nicholas Peart

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image source:  www.amusingplanet.com